Shut Down the ‘Defender’? Why?

By: Mark Fitzgerald

You haven’t read anything about the so-called “boycott” of the Chicago Defender in E&P until now, for two reasons: The story its organizers are trying to sell Chicago journalists is basically incoherent, and their claims of community support are outlandish.

When I asked around about the organizers of the campaign, people who know Chicago’s African American community far better than I do were pretty dismissive. “If you’re thinking about writing about this, I have three words of advice,” one told me. “It’s beneath you.”

But slowly the campaign is making its way into the mainstream press. The local National Public Radio outlet devoted a segment to it in April. On the hundredth anniversary of the Defender May 5, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who has shown a strong independent streak when writing about black community issues, portrayed the paper’s top executives as “embroiled in a struggle with grassroots activists for the soul of the paper.”

Since all this activity began with the boycott announcement in late March, though, my own impression is that it’s been less a struggle for a paper’s soul than a confused campaign by some activists whose motives are hard to divine.

Going out to one of their occasional pickets Thursday didn’t do much to clarify the situation.

Grandly styling themselves as the Concerned Citizens Against the Chicago Defender Newspaper, the organizers assert in their frequent press releases that their ranks are drawn from “over 500 community organizations: political, religious, law, labor and citizens.”

Thursday morning, they managed to muster 75 or so picketers to march and chant in front of the Defender’s South Side office, but nearly all of them seemed to be from a single group. They wore white hard hats labeled Workship Coalition, and were claimed by Darryl Smith, president of the Englewood Political Task Force.

“What they do as a group is go to construction sites and ask for parity and inclusion in work,” Smith told me. The group made headlines recently by massing on the Dan Ryan Expressway to protest alleged discrimination in hiring and subcontracting on the reconstruction project. “We asked them to come, and they came out to prove that we are not just ‘one or two’ protesters,” Smith said.

That’s been the claim of the Defender’s executive editor, Roland Martin, who has said the picketers are being paid to show up at the demonstrations.

I couldn’t tell you why the people chanting “Shut it down/Right now” showed up to pace in front of the newspaper on a raw morning that was more like December than May. No marcher would say. “Talk to Omar,” each one told me when I approached. “We’re supposed to have you talk to Omar.” Omar is Calvin Omar-Johnson, president of the Workship Coalition.

When a Defender supporter confronted the picketers, repeatedly asking, “Why are you doing this?,” the longest answer he got from anyone was from a man who said, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” the supporter shouted. “I can’t talk to you,” the marcher mumbled.

Melvin Caldwell, Harold Davis Jr., and Hal Baskin, the principal public faces of the boycott, can give you many reasons for the demonstration — and maybe that’s the problem.

There’s not much focus, and all the reasons hardly add up to a justification to “shut it down,” as the marchers chanted.

They say the paper, which has exactly one full-time general assignment reporter, has “refused” to cover the issue of “sexual predators” in black neighborhoods, though nobody’s really specific about what developments they think have been ignored.

They complain that the paper is taking “funding” from DaimlerChrysler, which they note is being sued for racial discrimination, in part based on alleged racially derogatory comments and writing by executives of its financial arm.

But isn’t DaimlerChrysler just another customer, getting ad space for its dollars, I ask Baskin, co-founder of P.E.A.C.E. (People Educated Against Crime in Englewood). And don’t those ads steer people into black-owned or neighborhood dealerships? He’s not impressed with that line of argument: “We’d rather have the black dealerships shut down than have the Defender print DaimlerChrysler ads. … Not all money is good money.”

The boycott organizers have a grab bag of other reasons. Some of it is an odd xenophobia applied to a newspaper that from its start had a national profile. Neither Martin, who is from Houston, nor Real Times LLC CEO Clarence Nixon, who’s from Detroit, are Chicagoans, as if that were a crime. The two make too much money. There’s too much wire copy in the paper, as if the Defender should return to the days, under the Chicago ownership of the Sengstacke family, when overworked reporters retyped press releases from cranks like Lyndon LaRouche or pyramid scheme hustlers and slapped their own bylines on them.

Boycott organizers complain there are so many errors of fact and grammar it should be called “the Offender.”

That last one really honks off Martin, judging by a recent column he wrote about the boycott. And it should. Since Martin’s arrival, the quality of the Defender’s writing and copy editing — and news judgment — has improved immeasurably. One of my guilty pleasures used to be reading the unintentionally hilarious copy that appeared in virtually every edition. To me, the old Defender wasn’t so much an “Offender” as a real-life version of The Onion. That’s all gone, and now the Defender has as many typos as the Tribune, the Sun-Times, or E&P.

There’s not much evidence the “boycott” is having any effect on the Defender, but then organizers say they won’t begin until this weekend — six weeks after the campaiagn was kicked off — actually going “door-to-door … and taking Chicago Defenders off the shelf” of stores.

Much of this boycott is simply personal, and given all the strong personalities involved on both sides, that’s not suprising. There’s history, too. Mel Caldwell for several years wrote a daily column for the Defender for free. He bristles at being called a “disgruntled employee,” pointing out he never worked for the paper. And he notes that plenty of actual employees have left since Martin’s arrival. “And look at them,” he said, pointing to the line of men in white hard hats, “are they disgruntled employees?”

As the protesters were led away after a half-hour or so of marching — “Single file!” the person leading them shouted as they walked away — Caldwell stayed behind to talk to me and two other reporters. “Martin and Nixon,” he said, “They just don’t get it.”

Neither, I guess, do I.

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